Students paying for budget cuts

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL and KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: September 6, 2011 - 8:42 AM

Bulging classrooms and skyrocketing activity fees are the fallout from shrinking budgets.

As schools open across Minnesota on Tuesday, the tough economic times will be more noticeable to students, teachers -- and soon, taxpayers.

In November, a record 133 school districts say they'll ask taxpayers to support referendums to ward off cuts that have condensed class schedules, provoked higher pay-to-play fees and forced schools to resort to in-school advertising to make ends meet.

"We don't see an end in sight to the difficult budget cuts," North Branch Superintendent Deb Henton said. "It makes it extraordinarily difficult to look to the future and believe that things are going to improve."

When indexed for inflation, school revenue across the state has declined by double digits over the past eight years, according to a state Education Finance Working Group convened this winter. Referendums helped close that gap and, as costs rise, more districts than ever will seek help from taxpayers this fall. But with an economy that has left families cash-strapped, too, voters may be less likely to approve them.

In 2005, voters supported 80 percent of referendum questions. Last fall, the approval rate dropped to 23 percent, state records show.

'It keeps getting worse'

In North Branch, school leaders will appeal to voters this fall for the eighth time after seven failed attempts. The 3,500-student district north of the Twin Cities is among 10 percent of districts in Minnesota without an operating levy for day-to-day expenses. As students return to the second year of four-day school weeks, more crowded classrooms and cuts to everything from jazz band to middle-school soccer, leaders have pared back their request.

"Our kids just lack so many opportunities [because] we've cut so much," school board chairwoman Kim Salo said.

North Branch has joined the growing list of districts turning to advertising to drum up dollars, plastering ads on lockers and school mailings, football games and in staff lounges. The district is also allowing businesses to solicit at parent-teacher conferences. At a recent school open house, a local gym paid to set up a table and hawk memberships.

The desperate measures follow $14 million in cuts over the past eight years, and "it just keeps getting worse and worse," Henton said, blaming the shift of raising property taxes from the state to the local level. "It's absolutely frustrating."

In Lakeville, voter rejection of a tax increase last fall left the school board facing a projected two-year, $15.8 million budget deficit. The impact was felt across the district: An elementary school closed. Scores of jobs were cut. Activity fees shot up, with the district charging up to $600 for hockey.

Several west-metro schools also ramped up fees for student parking and athletics, all part of the rising cost of public education. The influx in referendum requests comes at a time when almost 40 percent of Minnesota's students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals this year.

"We can't charge tuition, because it's public education," said Gary Lee, associate director of management services with the Minnesota Association of School Boards. "The school districts need to find a way to keep the doors open."

Costs outpace funding

Northfield and West-St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan in the south-metro are among the districts that will ask voters to increase their operating levy authority to the maximum allowed under state law. In northwestern Minnesota, the Stephen-Argyle Central school district will ask taxpayers to provide $2,000 per student, up from the current levy of $1,000. They join dozens of other districts asking voters for help as the state delays $700 million in funding to schools. Until 40 percent of state aid arrives next year, districts are also tapping cash reserves or taking out short-term loans just to pay bills.

As president of the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials, Jeff Solomon has heard his colleagues across the state lament. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, where he's finance director, redrew walking boundaries in the spring, eliminating transportation for 2,000 students.

In Bloomington, administrators changed high school class schedules for the first time in 15 years, allowing the district to cut 16 teachers and save $750,000. Now, they're considering changes at their middle schools that could trim another $250,000. The district is also exploring advertising options.

"Every school district has to be doing what we're doing," district spokesman Rick Kaufman said. "There is no district in Minnesota that can sustain the current funding levels. It hasn't kept pace."

Staff writer Sarah Lemagie contributed to this report.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491 Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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